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Blues Kingsnake

[whitespace] 'The Lost Tapes' reaffirm Muddy Waters' lofty status in the history of the blues

By Nicky Baxter

When Muddy Waters and what was perhaps the first blues supergroup first commandeered Windy City's black music haunts in the spring of 1948, the racket could be heard halfway across town. Then 38, the garrulous, Cherokee-cheeked singer/slide player had learned the hard way that he'd have to ditch his battered old acoustic and pump up the volume with electric instruments in order to be heard above the ruckus made by clublanders.

Between 1948 and 1960, the man with vocal chords tough enough to rattle a pit of snakes created a body of work whose influence (with the possible exception of arch-nemesis Howlin' Wolf) remains unmatched: "Mannish Boy," "Got My Mojo Workin," "Hoochie Coochie Man" and an entire set list more, are by now standards.

By the 1960s, Chess Records was bent on torpedoing the musician's legacy, teaming him up with young fuzz-faced rock-guitar bands that placed volume over competency. Electric Mud was Muddy's low point. On the road, however, Muddy Waters was still at the height of his powers. The Lost Tapes (Blind Pig) offers undeniable proof that Waters was still had his mojo working.

Recorded in 1971, The Lost Tapes features Muddy backed by a crack Chicago unit that included George "Harmonica" Smith, pianist Pinetop Perkins, guitarists Sammy Lawhorn and Pee Wee Madison, bassist Calvin Jones and drummer Will "Big Eyes" Smith.

Barreling through a veritable hit parade, Waters and company are in a take-no-prisoners mode. All 11 tracks are killer, but "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Crawlin' Kingsnake" and "Trouble No More" are particularly arresting.

On the stop-time "Hoochie Coochie Man," the band smolders with intensity. Waters swaggers his way through the song, announcing his arrival as a king bee equipped with a lethal sting. Smith's harp is as hard-edged as the leader's vocal, braying with the recalcitrance of a country mule.

"Kingsnake" is equally potent. The rhythm section sets up the tune with a kind of brutal grace. Willie Smith slaps his drum-kit like with a deceptive nonchalance. Jones rumbles menacingly beneath the cacophony of Lawhorn and Madison's churning guitars. Waters crows like a rooster in heat, coiling around each verse with a sly sexuality. At just over three minutes, "Crawling Kingsnake" is tightly compact, aptly summarizing Muddy's black blues magic.

"Trouble No More" is a raucous number that crackles with conviction. Muddy is at his brazen best, bulldozing his way through a not-so-fond farewell to his contrary-minded woman. Smith is, again, called on to add urgency to the tune, which he does with a dramatic flair, blowing with fanatical glee.

The live session concludes with a rollicking take of "Got My Mojo Working." The band locks in on the groove with murderous intent. Here Perkins' playing is at the fore, highlighting the tune's rhythmic fury. Smith pounds away at his kit like a locomotive gone awry.

"She's 19 Years Old" and the venerable classic "Long-Distance Call" are also given a thorough working over. The Lost Tapes, which is bolstered by the inclusion of a rare video interview and performance of "Long-Distance Call" is an must-have for blues acolytes and fanatics alike. This disc proves that Muddy Waters was the undisputed boss of blues.

 

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From the August 5-11, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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